Affirming Cultural Identity / Introduction
Introduction to Affirming Cultural Identity
Affirming cultural identity can foster a sense of belonging in students, a key element of increasing engagement and student achievement.



Schools are complex cultural spaces, governed by implicit codes that reflect dominant societal values. When working across lines of difference, it is not always intuitive how to fully appreciate students' diverse perspectives and experiences. Participation, misbehavior, even learning, are all steeped in culture and subject to teacher biases (1,3,4,5).

Cues - both subtle and overt — can send the message that school is not a place for students of marginalized backgrounds; it’s a reminder that it is not for “people like them.” Students can experience “belonging uncertainty,” a feeling of doubt that they will be rejected by institutional authorities; they may be worried about confirming negative group stereotypes; or they may distrust the institution of school altogether. All of these possibilities may compel a student to downplay their identity (2,6,7).

Years of ethnographic research has shown how teachers who demonstrate cultural competence and affirm students' cultural identity can build trust with racially and ethnically diverse classroom communities in ways that encourage deep engagement (1, 3, 4, 5). Such teachers communicate to all students that they are important, valued, and that they belong. When students feel a deep sense of belonging, they are more likely to put forth effort and take risks (2, 6). They are more likely to experience a variety of positive academic and social outcomes.

Culturally competent teachers connect with students from diverse backgrounds because they value the communities and home lives of their students (1,3,5). Students who feel validated in school can pursue academic excellence without having to abandon their cultural identity. Teachers who work to build bridges between students’ rich knowledge and the classroom content are able to create an environment that affirms the identities and cultural backgrounds of their students. (3, 5).

Social psychological research has contributed to a greater understanding of how a sense of belonging can be cultivated among students of color. This offers a pathway for teachers to make their classroom spaces welcoming and affirming for students from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, it can build classroom cultures where students value and respect one another, allowing them to challenge common stereotypes held by peers.

Survey Measures

  • In this class, I feel proud of who I am and my background (8)
  • In this class, I've learned new things about my culture and/or community  (1)
  • In this class, I have the chance to learn about the culture of others  (1)


Strategies that Affirm Cultural Identity

At its core, cultural competence is a fundamental belief in the importance of cultural and individual diversity in learning. It is an outlook that values the “human welfare, dignity, and respect” of all students (3). A foundational step in becoming more culturally responsive is to critically examine one’s own beliefs about education, about the cultural backgrounds of students, and about the interplay between the two.

By valuing diverse ways of knowing, being, and communicating, culturally responsive teachers validate different perspectives and help integrate students’ cultural identities with their student identity. While there are no “quick fixes” for developing a culturally responsive pedagogy, teachers can promote positive learning environments by validating students, using students’ cultures as vehicles of learning, and communicating belonging.



  1. Byrd, C. M. (2016). Does culturally relevant teaching work? An examination from student perspectives. SAGE Open, 6(3).
  2. Cohen, G. L., & Garcia, J. (2008). Identity, belonging, and achievement: A model, interventions, implications. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(6), 365-369.
  3. Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (Third ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  4. Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). It's not the culture of poverty, it's the poverty of culture: The problem with teacher education. Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 37(2), 104-109.
  5. Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2018). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (7th ed.). New York: Pearson
  6. Walton, G.M., & Cohen, G.L. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92(1), 82-96.
  7. Yeager, D. S., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Hooper, S. Y., & Cohen, G. L. (2017). Loss of institutional trust among racial and ethnic minority adolescents: A consequence of procedural injustice and a cause of life-span outcomes. Child Development, 88(2), 658-676
  8. Ferrell, A.C. (2018). Cultural Competency Indicators. Unpublished Survey.

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